Some Teens Get A Special Court

One more alternative to California’s traditional justice system: Santa Monica High School has become the latest Los Angeles County school to adopt a “teen court” approach that lets fellow students judge their peers. The Santa Monica Daily Press reports that the program, launched in 1992, offers teenagers a voluntary alternative to delinquency court and the crime can be removed from their record.
The first court featured a visit from the police chief and several judges, but the teenagers handled the actual case themselves, according to a story by David Mark Simpson. The story follows a case of middle school computer hacking and how it gets handled. Citing a program official, the newspaper says the program has grown to include 23 schools.
The defendants, who are from other schools, opted to be tried by a jury of their peers rather than go to delinquency court. The incentive to be tried by a group of adolescents: The crime is expunged from their record.
See the story here.

Civil Court Delays Lead To ‘Private’ Divorce Judges

California’s court delays may be frustrating many, but for some the solution might be “private judges” and opting into an alternative system. At “,” the private website warns that “.. although California law states that a couple can be divorced in six months and one day from the time one spouse is correctly served with proper divorce documents by the other, the reality is that it can take much, much longer.  One of the biggest culprits is the massive delays in the California court system.”
In some counties, the website contends, “… this means that it can take months or years to make it through the system, even in uncontested divorce cases. For example, initial divorce documents filed in Los Angeles County in April of 2013 were not being processed until December.

The service offers “mediation and private judge services” built upon 25 years of working with the court system. In other words, if you can afford the service you have a chance to bypass the gridlock. This is clearly something we’ll be seeing more of as the state dismantles its civil courts system. 
Check out the website here.

Plaintiff, Defense Attorneys Agree On Court Funding Need

You just don’t find much common ground among plaintiffs attorneys, who tend to sue corporate entities, and the tort reformers, who tend to seek ways to make it harder to sue corporate entities. But both groups agree with California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye’s “Blueprint for Access to Justice” that she unveiled this month. Along with a spate of press outreach events, it represents this year’s budget offensive for the courts system.
The plaintiff attorney group Consumer Attorneys of California group’s president, John M. Feder, said in a press statement that “… we strongly support the restoration of adequate funding to California’s court system. For the past six years, as court funding has shriveled, California consumers and businesses have faced increasing obstacles to resolving disputes that can be fairly handled only by the courts. The long waits and travel inconveniences that have been created by closing courthouses, cutting staff and  reducing service hours must end. The Chief Justice’s proposal addresses the reality of what it will take to have a fully functioning judicial branch, and we think it is a step in the right direction toward restoring the access to justice that California citizens deserve in a society of laws.” 
 The Civil Justice Association of California, or CJAC, is among the state’s “tort reform” pro-business groups favoring the proposal.  The group’s website cites CJAC President Kim Stone saying that “… businesses in California need a fully functioning, appropriately funded judicial system. Court delays can turn a one year case into a three-year case, with greatly increased costs for both sides. CJAC applauds the $100M increase in judicial branch funding in the 2014 Governor’s proposed budget, but believes that the courts need and deserve more.”
There you have it. One of the few times you’ll read any report where those people are singing the same tune.
Find more on court funding from the plaintiff attorney point of view here.
And find more on court funding from the tort reform point of view here.

Presiding Juvenile Court Judge who blasted system is calling it quits

Los Angeles is losing one of its more respected judges. And while Superior Court Judge Michael Nash, presiding judge of the county’s sprawling juvenile court system, is doing the old “new opportunities” dance, a column from the L.A. Times might offer insight into his frustrations amid budget cuts and after 29 years on the court.

Judge Michael Nash (photo from California Courts,

Judge Michael Nash (photo from California Courts,

The judge told the Metropolitan News that he has not decided if he will retire soon or serve out his term, which tuns through 2014. The MetNews also reported that Deputy District Attorney Dayan Mathai Thursday became the first candidate to take out papers to run for Nash’s seat. You can find that story (and if you’re interested in court election news, go ahead and bookmark it) here.

Judge Nash’s comments were a bit more reflective, and downright dismal, in Jim Newton’s L.A. Times column in June, 2013: “I feel as crappy about things as I have in a long time,” he says in the column. “It’s just very difficult to do the job in a meaningful way.” Newton explains that “… the source of Nash’s discontent is the swelling caseload that his judges are being asked to carry — a burden that reduces the amount of time they have to focus on the needs of the children whose futures they decide. As of today, he said, each of the court’s 20 full-time judges handles roughly 1,350 cases at any given time, well above the recommended maximum. Often, matters of grave consequence must be heard and decided in minutes, even when they call for careful deliberation.”
And (spoiler alert!) the Newton column ends with this: “… near the end of our conversation the other day, I asked whether he saw anything on the horizon that would make the work of his court easier and improve the lives of the children in its care. His answer: ‘No.'”
Read the telling column here.

Media Effort For Court Budget Increase Continues

“Justice doesn’t come cheap,” begins the editorial in The Sacramento Bee, adding that “California’s top court official has put out a price tag for the Legislature and public to ponder – $1.2 billion. That’s how much more the judicial branch needs annually by 2016-17 to recover from four years of steep budget cuts and restore a fully functioning court system.”
Say what you will of California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, you have to admit she’s working the state’s mainstream media in hopes of getting more cash for the courts. The SacBee is the latest to note that she is rejecting the governor’s “$105 million” increase, saying it will mean more layoffs. The state capitol newspaper writes that “… Cantil-Sakauye asserts – and the Legislative Analyst’s Office agrees – that because the courts can’t dip into reserves as they did the last two years, that would be a net reduction….” She says another $161.5 million will just “tread water” and keep the current level of services, plus cover an increase in employee health and retirement costs.
The paper also notes that “… the Judicial Council must accept some responsibility. Before pulling the plug in 2012, it wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on a badly botched statewide computer system designed to bring the courts into the 21st century. Administrative offices got fat. There’s more work to do to make the courts more efficient.” Truly, the budget games have begun.
Read more here.

Chino Newspaper Calls For Court Changes

The Chino Champion newspaper is among the local media organizations taking notice of civil justice rationing, and it has a proposal: Return the statewide courts system to local control. The paper writes that “… the court system is being squeezed to where it no longer serves the public as it should. Chino Valley residents have experienced the effects of its superior court closure, a move that adds costly hours or days to participants, whether they are plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses or jurors.”
The result, the Champion argues, is that relatively simple issues like code enforcement or traffic citations become more trouble than they are worth, both for government and residents. The suggestion: “we have advocated before that the courts return to the less expensive locally-based system to handle up to 90 percent of the matters such as traffic, small claims and custody orders which now clog the superior court system. This would be one step in restoring a sense of justice to the people.”
Read the editorial here.

Court Delays Hitting Mentally Ill Defendants

Nobody has to tell civil courts advocates that some court functions enjoy more political attention and funding priority than others. But there’s increasing concern that mentally incompetent defendants are being stuck in county jails because there are just not enough hospital beds available, at least not ones designed for treating the mentally ill. Of course, the system is creating a revolving door as the lack of treatment leads people right back to local jails.
The San Luis Obispo Tribune has one of the better local stories about the trend, which is shaping up as a key issue for the upcoming state budget battle. Recent federal court rulings have increased focus on mental health under Obamacare, and these cases are sure to gain priority. The Tribune explains the situation: “The problem is particularly notable for defendants declared incompetent to stand trial. Competent defendants understand the charges against them and can assist their attorneys in their defense. If an attorney doesn’t think a client can do that, he declares a doubt in court. At that point, psychiatric evaluations are ordered. If a judge deems the defendant incompetent, the case is suspended, and the defendant is ordered to undergo treatment until competency is restored.” Except backlogs and cutbacks make that process nearly impossible,
Read the report here.

Courts Seek Savings With Jury Selection

The latest proposal from the California Judges Association to cut costs? How about lowering the number of no-reason jury dismissals from 10 to only five for misdemeanors? Supporters of that idea are asking state lawmakers to make the change via a bill, SB794, introduced by Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa.  

The Judge’s Association says the move would save $1.2 million per year for the courts, but a whopping $30 million or more for the prospective jurors, their employers and their communities, according to a report in SFGate. They also report that about 1.5 million Californians report for jury duty each year. It is unclear what impact the move would have on civil trials, where jury capacity is an increasingly touchy topic.

Check out the details here.

Family Court ‘Expose’ On The Big Screen



That new “Divorce Corp.” documentary by Joe Sorge continues to make waves, with Variety saying that its director “… depicts the family court itself as an untrustworthy, user-unfriendly system of so-called justice. Here, they claim, divorcing couples are placed at the mercy of judges who are frequently irresponsible in their judgment; intolerant of those who attempt to navigate the courts without counsel (there are no court-appointed attorneys); and prejudiced in favor of lawyers who ply them with campaign contributions.”
The trade journal also calls the film a “vigorous but clumsily argued expose of the corrupt family-court practices that have turned one of life’s more painful experiences into a $50 billion-a-year industry.” The movie is in limited theatrical release now and Los Angeles is one of the cities where you can find a showing. Check out the Variety piece for showtimes and the rest of the review here.


Chief Justice: Justice Rationing Is A Civil Rights Issue

The real battle over Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2014-15 budget plans got under way this week with California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye saying that budget cuts are not just a fiscal problem but a civil rights problem. Her comments at a Tuesday press conference and in related interviews indicate that the “civil rights issue” will likely highlight this year’s argument for more courts funding. Last year, cuts in Los Angeles County brought threats of legal action based largely on access issues.
The chief justice told the Los Angeles Times that the governor’s spending plan probably would trigger more courthouse closures and layoffs and increase delays for trials and divorce and custody matters. Brown’s plan includes an “additional” $105 million for the courts in 2014-15, but Cantil-Sakauye wants a three-year plan with much more spending. “We are rationing justice, and it has become more than a fiscal problem,” Cantil-Sakauye told reporters. “It is, in my view, it is now a civil rights problem. … We know we are denying the protections of an American democracy.”

You can read the L.A. Times story here.